US envoy warns time running out on visa waivers, amid Likud refusal to cooperate

As Tom Nides lobbies for legislation needed for Israel to join US Visa Waiver Program, Likud adamant it will not back the bills, claims it’s a lost cause this year anyway

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and opposiiton chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Knesset on December 9, 2021. (US Embassy in Israel)
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and opposiiton chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Knesset on December 9, 2021. (US Embassy in Israel)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides warned Tuesday that time was running out to advance the three pieces of legislation necessary in order for Israel to be able to join the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) by the end of next year.

“Continuing to work hard to get #VisaWaiverProgram done to benefit both Israelis and Americans. Can’t slow down now,” Nides tweeted.

The VWP allows citizens of participating countries to visit the US without applying for and being granted a visa, a process that takes time and money and is by no means assured to be successful.

The three required bills granting US authorities limited access to the information of US-bound travelers — as required of all VWP members — have been held up in the Knesset due to push-back from the Likud-led opposition. Nides sought to lobby lawmakers across the spectrum to get on board with the bills, seen as overwhelmingly popular among all Israelis, before parliament dissolved itself in June.

But the effort failed and now it will take the scheduling of emergency sessions in the coming months while the Knesset is in recess to pass the legislation. Otherwise, Israel will likely have to wait until at least 2024 to be added to the VWP, assuming it meets the criteria then.

But an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that this year may be the only year that Israel will be able to qualify for the VWP, thanks to a combination of low travel numbers due to the pandemic, along with the US embassy’s effort to assist Israelis with their visa applications, which have historically been ridden with disqualifying mistakes. To date, Israel has never been able to keep its visa rejection rate below the three percent mark necessary to qualify for inclusion in the VWP.

Hours after Nides’ tweet, Channel 12 published an unsourced report claiming that the ambassador had recently met Netanyahu and sought to pressure the Likud leader to back the legislation amid fears that the effort will be delayed by an entire year if the laws aren’t advanced before the November 1 Israeli election.

Likud then issued a statement responding to the report, insisting that US law doesn’t allow for Israel’s entry into the VWP for another year anyway, suggesting that there is no real reason for urgency.

Toward the end of the year, US authorities will receive the visa rejection rate from the previous fiscal year, which ends in late September. If it is below three percent, as the embassy hopes, Israel will be able to join the VWP, as long as it meets the other criteria.

While there is no clear deadline for when the three pieces of legislation must be passed, the bills must be implemented for a period of time before Israel joins the VWP, computer systems must be put in place and the US ambassador must submit a formal request for the country to be added to the program. If Israel waits until after the November election, there may not be enough time to complete all of these steps, particularly given the real possibility that parties will subsequently fail to form a government, further extending the ongoing political deadlock.

Likud in its statement took issue with the legislation being advanced, claiming it violates the privacy rights of Israelis. The bill is believed to largely be a template of the legislation passed in the 40 other countries that have joined the US VWP.

“After we form a stable government, the Likud will submit the necessary, but responsible, legislation [to the Knesset] and complete the move by March 2023, so that inclusion in the VWP will not be delayed even one day,” Likud asserted.

Critics say Likud’s intransigence is an effort to avoid giving the outgoing government a political win.

International passengers arrive at Miami International Airport before they are screened by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the US on November 20, 2020, in Miami, Florida. (AP Photo/ Lynne Sladky)

Israeli efforts to become the 41st party to join the program have been underway for years. They received a boost last year when US President Joe Biden told then-prime minister Naftali Bennett that it was something he wanted to see through, and that he had instructed his staff to play its part in doing so.

In the absence of waiver program membership, US law requires Israelis to apply for a visa in advance of their travels to the US — a process that often takes months, as it requires scheduling an appointment at the US embassy for a background interview, during which consular staff seeks to ensure that incoming travelers are not looking to remain in the US indefinitely.

If a candidate passes the interview process, they must submit their passport to the embassy, and it usually takes several weeks before it is returned with a visa inside. The timeline has been further drawn out as a result of the pandemic, with some Israelis reporting that the only appointments available at the embassy are for a year forward.

Passing the relevant legislation and meeting the required rejection rate are not the only hurdles Israel must overcome.

In order to be included in the waiver program, countries must provide reciprocal privileges to all US passport holders at all points of entry. This will mean allowing all US citizens in Gaza and the West Bank visa-less entry into Israel — something Israel does not currently grant over what it says are security concerns.

It places similar restrictions on Palestinian-Americans coming into Israel from abroad, which would also have to cease if Jerusalem wants to join the program.

A source close to Likud MK Yoav Kisch told The Times of Israel in June that the party also has issues with the US stipulation that authorities reduce pressure on Palestinian Americans who wish to transit through Israel.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report

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